Saturday, September 10, 2011

Bigamy? Why That's Big of You!: "The Bigamist" (1953)



Did you hear the one about the traveling salesman? "The Bigamist" is an overwrought melodrama suffering from a seventy-nine minute identity crisis.

The charisma challenged Edmond O'Brien is Harry, a San Francisco based traveling salesman married to Eve (Joan Fontaine). Eve and Harry are looking to adopt a child, and are assigned to caseworker Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn). Jordan notices Harry's terminally constipated expression every time the term "thorough investigation" is used, and goes to Los Angeles to find some of Harry's clients. He also finds Harry, living in a modest home with his other wife Phyllis (the film's director, Ida Lupino) and their infant son.

With halting narration, Harry tells Jordan (and us) how he became involved with Phyllis, and his inability to break things off with Eve, whose heart attack stricken father has horrible timing. He seems to take ill or die every time Harry wants to "talk." Jordan doesn't know what to do with Harry, as both wives learn of each other's existence.

A woman directing a motion picture in the 1950's was unheard of, but instead of admiring Lupino's ground breaking spirit, I was disappointed with her choice of material. "The Bigamist" is a film noir-soap opera-black comedy that does not work as any of those genres.

With all the cigarettes, booze, shadows, neon, coffee, and terms like "big lug" tossed around, I half-heartedly waited for Harry to spill his secret to Jordan, slip him a mickey, plug him full of slugs, then dump his bones in Encino and carry on with both the dames, see? The noir elements are heavy here, except for the plot and actresses.

Joan Fontaine is Eve...EVE...get it? The first wife who we should be rooting for. Unfortunately, Eve is a moron of the highest order, not noticing Harry's almost convulsive behavior whenever she comes close to the truth. It doesn't help that Fontaine's constant facial expression is the same as someone who has just stepped in dog mess at the park. Lupino's Phyllis is such a bitter pill in her opening scenes, it is hard to see what Harry sees in her. Despite being in almost every scene, O'Brien is only fourth billed. If the screenwriter was going for the soap opera, they should have centered the story around one or both sympathetic women, not the sweaty schlub in the middle.

I tried to accept the film as comedy. The hand wringing, the heavy narration, the discussion about chop suey not being a Chinese dish...there is plenty to giggle at, but was it done all in jest? No, the film is so deathly serious it might eventually trigger chronic depression in the viewer. Even the film's "light" moments are overdone. Jane Darwell's cleaning woman cameo is just plain weird. Inside jokes about Gwenn's triumph in "Miracle on 34th Street" isn't dragged out once, but twice! He played Santa Claus! We get it! Can we just move on?!

Lupino the director does a plain job with the terrible script. She does nothing spectacular, in front of or behind the camera. The screeching musical score underlines every ham-fisted emotion threefold.

I wanted to appreciate "The Bigamist," but I wasn't sure what to appreciate about it. It's not the worst film ever made, but it does make for a slow seventy-nine minutes, camp value notwithstanding. Rent "Micki & Maude" instead. At least that film wanted to be a comedy. (* *) out of five stars. Get this movie!: The Bigamist (Film Chest Restored Version)